TOM BEE: That song appears on an album titled Silent Warrior by a group XIT which I was the lead singer and principal songwriter. It was released on Motown back in 1973. The song was way ahead of its time. About the same time Marvin Gaye put one out called, “What’s Going On?” which was also an ecological rant of a song.
We’re in the process of re-releasing “Color Nature Gone” as a single. Not so much for a profit—because we’re not interested in the sale—but as a musical public service announcement to alert the world and the nation the importance of saving this planet and global warming and all the things that come with it. I feel that “Color, Nature, Gone” is the real true American song with the sound of the bells and the drums. Coming from a Native American group, what better way to express the urgency of the situation then with a song Native Americans call, “Color, Nature, Gone?”
AD: You mentioned XIT and that you were signed to Motown. How did that happen? Seems like an unusual match for a Native American band and an African American record label.
TB: Yes it was very unusual back then for Motown, which was primarily a black label, to have a Native American group signed. What happened was Motown was wanting to break into the rock and roll genre and they had signed a group from the Michigan area called Rare Earth (originally The Sunliners). To make a long story short, Motown formed a label and named it after the band Rare Earth, but the group had nothing to do with the actual label—it was by Motown. That was the imprint that they used to release music by artists that weren’t black. The way that we were signed was the band had written songs and put them on 7-inch reels, which is what you had back then, and I left them at several record companies in Los Angeles—Motown being one of them. We came back home and about three weeks later I get a call from Motown saying, “Yeah, you left a 7-inch reel here and it had a song on there that we wanted to do with Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five.” They flew out some guy to sign a publishing contract on the song and they heard that I had a music group and they said, “Are you interested in making a record?” And I said, “Well, has the horse gotten that close?” The next thing I knew we were in Detroit recording our first album. We had about 2 or 3 months before they actually flew us there and this was the time that was used to write most of our music. Our first album, Plight of the Redman, was a history lesson in music about the American Indians. That was followed in 1970 by Silent Warrior which included the song, “Color Nature Gone.” That’s how we ended up on the Motown label.
AD: We’ve also heard you guys were blackballed by the government. Why and how so?
TB: As far as being blackballed as you know, 1973—the 70s in general—was a time in this nation when there was a lot of unrest and a lot of protesting and different things. It was kind of a crazy time—a crazy, chaotic time. Silent Warrior was released at the same time as the Wounded Knee “uprising.” And so basically we were caught right in the middle of it. We also did a lot of benefit concerts for the American Indian movement. In fact, the press at the time gave us the name “Masters of the American Indian Movement.” We were caught up in all this political movement that was happening, and President Nixon sent out a letter to all the richest nations encouraging them not to play music from the so called “Indian uprising” because of the unrest that was happening at Wounded Knee and that kind of stuff. So obviously Motown backed off the promotion of the record because they didn’t want to get caught up in the political side of it, being a minority owned label themselves. But at that time they had already done so much advertising and promotion that they couldn’t stop the momentum and the record still got out there and became huge in the college circuit, the underground circuit, and throughout Europe. We basically developed a cult following which to this day, by the way, continues. Like you said earlier, “Color, Nature, Gone” was released way ahead of its time and right now is very relevant to what is going on.
AD: Is this how you got into selling Native American music?
TB: No. Basically, I never really thought that I would have a record label. That wasn’t my intention; that wasn’t a goal; it was never a dream. It basically just happened. When we were not signed by Motown, we went through a period of trying to hold the group together. Because of the lyrical content of our music we were starting to find it difficult to find jobs anywhere. We were blackballed from college campuses, and of course a lot of the major college promoters didn’t want to use us because of the lyrical content of the album—different things that they labeled militant or radical. It was a joke because it was none of that. By comparison to today our lyrics were Dr. Seuss. All of this disabled our ability to find work so one at a time members started dropping out of the group. I was desperate to try and hold things together and do as many gigs as I could possibly find in Europe or wherever. After our last tour in Europe, I came back home and I felt just defeated and didn’t know what I was going to do. I started just doing odds and ends jobs and basically just stayed away from the music business for several years. And then I got like a little drum beat in my heart and I knew I should get back into the business, but I didn’t know how to get back into it. I started looking around at the state of American Indian music in general and by that I mean the traditional music—music being produced by Native American artists. At the time there were only a couple of companies doing this kind of music and they were mainly trading-post only labels. It was primarily a cassette only genre. Very little went into the graphics, promotion, or production of it all. What I learned at Motown in 8 years, I decided to put into creating a label that recorded Native American music—both traditional and contemporary—and put the same type of care as any label would put into any type of music, whether it be rock or R&B or whatever it might be. I thought that if we improve the production and the graphics and the promotion we might have a shot at bringing attention to this music and bringing it to the world. And that’s what I did. I was fortunate enough to purchase back the master tapes from Motown in 1981—even then I didn’t have any intentions of starting a label, I just didn’t want these two albums being sold at Kmart for 99 cents. Those two records were what we used to form Sounds of America Records (SOAR) and out of that grew this label. We were not the first label to record Native American music and I do not want people to think that, because I am not saying that—we were not the first label to do that. But we were the first label to take it to the next level, we were the first to put it on CD, we were the ones responsible for getting large chain stores to create Native American sections in their stores and basically take it world wide. We were the trendsetters. We believed in quality of the recording, not quantity of the recording. So with this philosophy SOAR was able to soar. That’s how it started.
AD: What do you think about the 8th Fire event in Austin?
TB: I think it’s awesome. I think people need to be made aware and I think people have a lot to say—a lot of spiritual things and thoughts that need to be shared. First of all, we need to garner support from everyone in order to make this happen. We have a lot to share and we have a lot to speak about and I think the 8th Fire is going to do a lot to expose this to people and what the first nation’s people are all about. In our spiritual walk, in our spiritual lives, we really have a lot of answers that are just now coming to this earth.
AD: You once said, “If the worst thing ever happened and I had to move to Texas, please let me be in Austin, because they still play live music in the clubs.”
TB: I had the pleasure of spending some time in Austin one time during either an independent music convention or a NARN convention. That was the first time I had ever been to Austin—I had been to Texas, but never to Austin—I was just blown away. It’s just a really cool place. The culture is alive there. People there respect musicians, they respect songwriters, and they respect storytellers. That’s what it is all about. To me, music is such an important part of our lives. It’s a universal language and it’s so powerful. Most cities don’t allow it to flourish the way that Austin does.